Why We Have a Responsibility to Protect Syria

Even though the military challenges might make it unfeasible, we should acknowledge the moral and historical cases for intervening.

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A Syrian boy in Homs stands in front of a burned out armored vehicle belonging to the army / Reuters

I was an early supporter of military intervention in Libya. I called for a no-fly zone on February 23, just 8 days after protests began. Now, we're nearly 300 days into the Syrian uprising. Very few analysts, myself included, have publicly called for foreign intervention, even though the Syrian regime has proven both more unyielding and more brutal than Muammar Qaddafi's.

Steven Cook, in a recent and controversial piece, made the case for the military option in Syria. I agree with much of Cook's article but not all of it. Emotionally, and from a purely moral perspective, I agree with all of it. The risks of intervention, however, are tremendous. Marc Lynch has made the most persuasive case for caution. So I find myself torn.

It may make sense, then, to revisit the reasons I, and several others including Lynch, broke ranks with our colleagues on the left and supported the NATO operation in Libya. First, American policymakers should -- as a matter of principle -- take Arab public opinion seriously. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, there were no widespread calls among Iraqis themselves for us, or anyone else, to intervene militarily. In Libya, there were. The Libyan rebels were practically begging us to step in with military force.

In recent months, a rapidly growing number of Syrian activists, both on the ground and those in exile, have called forcefully and repeatedly for some form of foreign intervention, whether through the establishment of no-fly zones, no-drive zones, humanitarian corridors, "safe zones," or through the arming of rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army. 

The Syrian National Council, the most important Syrian opposition body and the closest analogue to Libya's National Transitional Council, has unequivocally called for foreign intervention. Its leaders have repeatedly issued such calls to the international community in similarly clear language. The same goes for Syrian activists on the ground. Each week, they agree on a theme for the Friday protests that take place across the country. On Friday, October 28, the protests were dubbed, again rather unambiguously, "no-fly zone Friday." We can't -- and shouldn't -- endorse something just because a country's opposition wants us to, but we do need to take their calls seriously, particularly because they happen to be directed to us.

As I argued in a recent article in The New Republic, Arab protesters and revolutionaries, despite their often passionate dislike of U.S. policy, continue to turn to us for support in their time of need. This should not be taken lightly. In a time when millions of Arabs are demanding and dying for their freedom, the United States finds itself in a privileged role. Because of who we are, what we claim to aspire to -- and, of course, our unparalleled military capability -- we often, for both better and worse, have the power to tip the balance one way or the other.

The clichéd refrain that the Arab uprisings are about "them" and not "us" seems to treat Western powers as innocent bystanders, which they aren't and haven't been for five decades. International factors have been critical in the majority of countries facing unrest, including Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt. In short, U.S. support for democracy matters and will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. In some countries, it will matter a great deal.

Presented by

Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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